William Morris's writing

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					William Morris's writing
Geoffrey Tillotson
edited by Peter Faulkner

If we first look at William Morris the man we are less likely to mistake the writer.
The man was more acceptable to common folk than any other writer of the time-
and this despite his placing his strange ideals before them. Who else would have been
accosted in Kensington High Street with 'Beg pardon, sir, but was you ever captain
of the Sea Swallow?' or spent so much time and energy, physical and mental,
stumping England and Scotland in the Socialist cause? Then again, he is more of an
artisan than Ruskin, the core of his genius being expressed partly in ways more or
less identical with those of the common fol~ in workshop or kitchen. The social
ideal he set before him, soon after leaving Oxford, was social in the fullest sense-he
placed highest what he called 'Fellowship'. In one of the early prose romances, 'The
Hollow Land', Florian, the old knight, looking back over his life, exclaims:
     o  my brothers! Lives passed in turmoil, in making one another unhappy; in
     bitterest misunderstanding of our brothers' hearts, making those sad whom
     God has not made sad....
And thirty years later, in A Dream of John Ball, the priest from Essex, John Ball
himself, addresses the crowd with 'Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven and lack
of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death...'.
For Morris escape was neither possible nor desirable. If he fled the nineteenth
century it was to return to it with healing in his wings. His flight was to places he
deemed more beautiful than the 'six counties overhung with smoke', but he did not
forget those counties, or the rest of England, spoiled or unspoiled. In The Sundering
Flood .the river is given a touch of the homely by being made 'as big as the Thames at
Reading', and the splendid sword that Waywearer gives young Osberne is useful for
both Morris's purposes-mediaeval and modern-in being 'such as no smith may
work now'. His poems and romances-what they meant for him, and the whole of
which they were part-existed for the reclaiming of England. His favoured Middle
Ages were a depot or emporium for aesthetic ideas that were at last justified by their
application to the nineteenth century. Morris could be modern only by pretending to
be mediaeval--or occasionally Greek. If he loved the beauty of ages dead and gone it
was for the sake of men still living. And indeed the beauty of those dead ages was
largely of his own making. It was a modern beauty, inspired in an air his imagination
found it easier to breathe in. Morris's escape was tied by the leg. He wrote in his
workshop, and when he took pen in hand he found the air around him stifling. He
did once start a novel but abandoned it because it was merely an instance of how not
to do it. He wrote a short story-Prank's Sealed Letter-which is up-to-date
scarcely further than in mentioning a railway. And there is the late longish poem

The Pilgrims of Hope in which, as Jack Lindsay has pointed out, he seems to be
reflecting on what was unsatisfactory in his marriage because of his wife's interest in
Rossetti, and in which some part of its triangular action takes place in Paris during
the time of the 1871 Commune. Otherwise he wrote nothing that could bear the title
of Trollope's The Way We Live Now, though something of his views on that subject
could be inferred from News from Nowhere.
Rossetti saw Morris's Sigurd the Volsung as outre-he did not want to read a story
about the son of a dragon, which was Sigurd's strange condition. The prose
romances also show the lives of men subject now and again to magic, and in his
objection to this element in Morris's stories Rossetti was speaking with firm voice,
knowing that he had the nineteenth century crusade for 'truth' behind him. We can
ignore his objection, however, because in the first place it offends against the
principles of literary criticism-principles that allow a writer freedom of choice,
inquiring only what is made of the chosen. We do not disqualifY King Lear because
its devastating action is set going by a situation appropriate to a fairy tale. Morris
made something good of his matter, and his particular good contained some of the
good aimed at by the 'truth' makers. He used magic-but used it responsibly. I mean
that it is suffered by people we accept as human-by human beings who otherwise
would qualify for parts in a novel of, say, Trollope, or, since there is in all Morris's
stories a franker acceptance of the human body complete than was common in
nineteenth century stories, in a tale ~f Chaucer. If a poet-or novelist or
playwright-can persuade us that he is writing of human beings, nothing else
matters in comparison. If we are givertmen and women, their setting can be ancient
or modern, though in this mood and that we may well prefer one setting to the
other-we may declare that we do not like historical novels, and yet reading The
Cloister and the Hearth can enjoy Reade's version of the late Middle Ages, if only
because we are experiencing it with Margaret and Gerard.

And this even holds for stories that deal in magic. Reading one of Morris's prose
romances, we read on for two main reasons-that it is good to breathe the air of
them, and because the people experiencing them are living human beings. The
stability of that vital sort of truth is not infringed by Morris in his romances any
more than it is by Chaucer in his. Not that his stories demonstrate a reading of
human nature as profound as Chaucer's-the Medea of his ]ason is often instanced
as a failure to rise to a great occasion, or, to take a recurrent detail, when one of his
young people 'reddens' he does not usually explore differences between reasons for
blushing. As far as he goes, however, he reads human nature truly-his sketch is
right even if he cannot give it the microscopic shading supplied by the great novelists
of his time. There is the same sort of difference between him and Chaucer as Johnson
had in mind when he contrasted Fielding (who could tell the time) and Richardson
(who could make the watch). Those, then, who thought or think of his romances as
merely escapist literature must rate human nature as not constantly important to
During the nineteenth century language was much experimented with, for the sake
of literature, and mainly of narrative literature. Dobell desiderateda language
completely new, invented bit by bit and for himself, during the thousand years he

would need for the job; he thought it unreasonable that an original genius should
pave to use a language made by others. The rest of the experimenters proceeded
practically. Barnes, who campaigned for a thorough-going Saxonisation of diction
(and amused Swinburne by advocating 'pushwainling' for 'perambulator') turned to
his native Dorset for the language of most of his poems. Hopkins promoted words
he had met in Lancashire and in our earlier literature in order to match his earnest
thought with words seemingly more earnest than their competitors which, being
used from habit, were used saltlessly. Swinburne made Saxon the quiet staple of his
verse, the Romance words cropping up sparsely.

Even some of the prose writers, now that their matter often lay remote in time and
place, avoided at least some of the current diction-and even language-by way of
obsolete words and expressions. Freeman wrote his history in a language strewn
with mediaeval words-they have the effect of littered scraps ofraw meat!-and the
same can be said of Burton's famous translation of the Arabian Nights, as of
Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. As for Morris he wrote all his prose romances
according to Freeman's principle-which Morris's practice may have helped him to
formulate:                                                            .

     (The true historian) shall forbear to deck his tale, or feel no call to deck it, with
     the metaphors or smartness of the novelist, but he shall tell it in clear and
     manly English....

Freeman, it may be added, owed something also to Carlyle's fondness for 'un'-
compounds: his history revels in neologisms like 'unright' and 'unlaw' which Morris
entirely avoids. Morris's practice illustrates Emerson's advice: 'Avoid adjectives: let
your nouns do the work.' Nouns and verbs are what he most favours for his
mediaevalising as for his reported imprecations: when he found an old church ruined
by a restorer, he broke out with 'Beasts! Pigs! Damn their souls!' The result of all this
is that his prose paces rather than walks. If some of the thinkers of the age, in novel
and poem as well as in treatise, could not get on without inflating their sentences,
Morris could and did, like other more ordinary folk. He had some few great ideas,
and they concerned concrete things, to which he clung, filling his prose with their
An indication that mediaevalising did not come by nature is afforded by his falling
for a mot juste without seeing that it is many centuries too late for his purpose-as
when in The Hollow Land he speaks of knights spinning 'round and round in a mad
waltz to the measured music of (their) meeting swords'. Later he made his
mediaevalising diction undisturbedly all of a piece, which did not rule out the
admission of a certain number of those Romance words that had already become
part of Middle England-pavilion (first made prominent in nineteenth century verse
by Shelley) peril, valiance, diligence, consequence, in special. Some of the words
contributing to the homely staple were available only in scholarly dictionaries-
kenspeckle-recognisable, conspicuous-a Scottish word: boun-made ready; a
word that had been revived by Scott: gangrel-vagabond: bever-drink (or snack).
But the rest are words still familiar-wallet; hanker; inkling-familiar but· also
striking because of the new look they have assumed in the general mediaevalising.

Among all the archaisers it is Morris who gives the reader most pleasure-Yeats
thought the style of the prose romances 'the most beautiful language I had ever read'.
The gains of his procedure far outweigh the initial irritations. The flow of the English
is easy, and many of the new expressions happy-'nodded a yea-say' or 'six moons
worn' or 'washed the night off his limbs'. And the prose can accommodate strange
ideas without effort, as when Osberne is warned against the misuse of the sword
given him by Waywearer:
  N<;>w then thou hast the sword; but I lay this upon thee therewith, that thou be
  no brawler nor make-bate, and that thou draw not Board-cleaver in any false
  quarrel, or in behalf of any tyrant or evil-doer, or else shall thy luck fail thee
  despite the blade that lieth hidden there.
There may well be something personal about Morris's bizarre success. Free and easy
as a man, he could not be stiff and self-conscious as an innovating prose-writer.
Max's brilliant cartoon showing him 'settled on the settle' cannot but pay tribute to
the rounded comfortableness of the settler. The reader accepts that Morris is not
giving him a 'language such as men do use'" or ever did, but on the basis of that
acceptance enjoys the artefact as he enjoys the performing artefacts of ballet. It is
because of the quality of the prose, and of Morris's deficiency as a metrist, that his
masterpieces are his prose romances and not Sigurd the Volsung.
Morris's lingo, in rebellion against much of die English round about him, also had a
social purpose. The hero of The Wood Beyond the World is introduced as follows:
  A while ago there was a young.man dwelli'ng in a great and goodly city by the
  sea which had to name Langton on Holm. He was but of five and twenty
  winters, a fair-faced man, yellow-haired, tall and strong; rather wiser than
  foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind; not of
  many words but courteous of speech; no roisterer, nought masterful, but
  peaceable and knowing how to forbear: in a fray a perilous foe, and a trusty
Here we get 'winters' instead of 'years': valiant, roisterer; masterful; perilous;
trusty;-words better at home in a world more primitive than ours, who have a
subtler and less decisive sense of character than had men of the seventeenth century
or earlier. Thisreversion was part of Morris's criticism of his times-he was showing
his fellows what men were like before the modern degree of sophistication set in:
Newman said he would welc~me a wave of superstition, and Morris that he would
welcome a wave of 'barbarism' once more flooding the world, its real feelings and
passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. Even
for his social purposes old diction was an advantage.
Morris, whose father left him rich at an early age, had every opportunity to fulfil his
genius, and took advantage of them all. That genius was so various in its outlets that
his life was as busy as that of any of our writers. It was as busy as Newman's. But
there was no agonising in his 'busyness' as there was in Newman's, who described
the ·process of writing a book as like painful childbearing; or as there was in
Carlyle's, who groaned over his desk and was made ill by composition. Morris's
busyness lacked the sort of literary earnestness that is another name for nineteenth
century intensity. His day was crowded, as was that of most of our writers, but
without stressfulness. Indeed for Morris busyness could sometimes be restful. He
was the only English poet of any standing who could exclaim 'If this is poetry it is
very easy to write.' and 'If a chap cannot compose an epic poem while he is weaving
tapestry, he had better shut up.' He achieved the fulfilment of his multiform genius
as comfortably as anybody could have, and the comparative effortlessness of it left
its marks on the product both in its negatives and in its positives. We do not go to
Morris to have our minds stretched, but to have them cleansed as receptacles for
.literary experience. It must have been partly the experience of reading Morris's
poetry that prompted Andrew Lang to say that poets no longer wrote abut the
Thirty-nine Articles-he was glancing back at Clough-but about appleblossom.
The passages I have quoted in verse and prose show that there was more than an
appleblossom beauty to most of them, but that particular beauty is their hallmark.
And it arises not only out of the beauty of the things he favours but out of that of the
living people he invents. Of all things human, he most liked what was most
accessible to the eyes-eolours, dresses, hair, faces, bodies (especially when they
were a credit to the species). He wished that men could live as happily as the gods
allowed, and seconded Ruskin's endeavours to lighten men's burdens and to make
them more interested in what was on their back. Near the green fields or not, he
believed they found their best pleasure in working with tools they could hold in their
crafty hands.
One idea that was specially dear to him was the mistaken one that men wanted to, or
could, revert to days when tools were simple and hand-driven-his own designs
should have given him pause, being the kind that best received the repetition they
called for by the calling in of big machines. Nevertheless the mistaken idea was
abundantly fruitful. To begin with, it was an aesthetic idea with expulsive powers. It
encouraged people to value space, to give things more room to breathe, to let in
among them a cooler and freer air, to make colours cleaner and clearer and to allow
each to spread further before it yielded to another. Along with it went his reassertion
of the pleasantness of stories other than novels. The nineteenth century has been well
called 'the narrative century' and among its widely various narratives Morris's stake
a claim for the kind of narrative that the novel was ousting. Morris knew that for all
the cry for truth, one of the favourite books of the century was The Arabian Nights.
He knew that people loved quick moving stories, that they were still as mediaeval-
or if you like, human-as the men in the framework of The Earthly Paradise, who
needed to hear stories as Frederick the Great's councillors (with whom Carlyle
showed such sympathy) needed to smoke pipes. Morris asserted the right of people
in the nineteenth century to shut up newspapers and novels and listen to a yarn.